After reading this intriguing post about a Greenpoint-based brewery (well, in the sense that Braven Brewery is based in Bushwick, which is to say it’s operated right here in Brooklyn, but the actual brewing happens Upstate) we met up with the owner of War Flag Ales Lagers, James McFillin, at Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg over beers. We discussed what it takes to get a brewery operation running from hops all the way to bottled, fermented drank, his plans to build out a brewery in Brooklyn in the near future, and rumors that his company is tied to the Koch Brothers. (Hint: It’s not… and actually, James really likes Bernie Sanders.)
You’ve probably seen War Flag’s taps around town: a vicious looking, star-spangled viper coiled around a faux wooden shaft is hard to miss. That uber-patriotic imagery can be a little jarring at first, maybe, but McFillin’s story is an admirable one. He built his company from the ground up, leaving a lucrative career in real estate to pursue his passion for brewing beer.
At first, War Flag had just a handful of taps around town. “It was very underground,” McFillin explained. But interest in the beer is expanding, so much so that McFillin outgrew the first brewery willing to brew his beer that he found in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He’s since moved his recipes to Shmaltz Brewery in Clifton Park, just outside of Albany. But McFillin says the goal has always been to move brewing operations to Brooklyn, and it’s a transition that’s just on the horizon.
“I have an expectation of having a 15-barrel brew house and I want to produce anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 barrels a year,” McFillin told us. As of now, War Flag has just two beers, the American Pilsner and a pale ale. “I wanted to give the pilsner some bitterness so a craftier drinker could drink it, but I also wanted to invite that Coors-Bud drinker and give them an approachable beer.” But McFillin expects to launch an IPA soon and either a porter or stout this winter.
We can’t say we were surprised exactly to see a new local beer around town, after all there seems to be a new one at least every season. “The East Coast is booming right now with craft beer,” McFillin said. But we were surprised to hear that something was possibly up with this particular beer. So much so that a local Bushwick bar, Pine Box Rock Shop, had decided to drain their War Flag kegs by way of renaming the beer “Pride Flag Pilsner” and pledging all the profits to an LGBT crisis intervention organization. As the bar owners told Bushwick Daily, they were trying to toss out those snake taps in a hurry.
But after speaking with War Flag’s owner, James McFillin, he explained that he’s actually made amends with the bar and the initial concerns raised in the article were simply the result of a big mix up.
Yeah, I read that. Look, I’m just one person and I wanted to give back in some way. I don’t have to give back, but I really wanted to. I glanced over the article. I called the bar [Pine Box Rock Shop] and said, “I’m really embarrassed, I’m totally against what those guys stand for. Any discrimination of any kind I’m totally against.” It was really hurtful to me because it is the antithesis of what we do.
The initial charity I was considering supporting, the Bill of Rights Institute, the Koch brothers are funders of that group. I didn’t know they were funders. All I was thinking was, OK this is an education not-for-profit that’s going around to kids in schools and teaching them how to combat abuse of power. This is what I get for being charitable. [We found an article from 2014 that confirmed the Koch brother’s affiliation with the Bill of Rights Institute.]
It’s done, though, I’m not giving to that organization anymore. Their affiliation with Monsanto is a big fuckin’ problem for me. But the problem was, I didn’t really know them and when I found out… you have to do some real serious digging, because the Koch brothers aren’t directly affiliated with the group, they don’t run the group, but they are contributors to the group. So on the surface, the group looks fantastic. If you go to the website, it looks great. It’s really unfortunate.
But I still want to give to somebody. Yes, this is about us being successful but it’s also about: What impact are we having on society? I want to educate kids, maybe I should have been a teacher. But now we’re supporting the Wounded Warrior project. It’s a wonderful cause. It ties into what we’re doing, these guys protect our freedom. Some of these guys, their lives are really thrown off course. It’s a big deal for me. I was in the Marine Corps, and I had a lot of friends who were hurt by conflict.
Initially, I was working in commercial real estate in Manhattan and one day it just dawned on me, if I can do anything what would it be? Well, open a brewery. Owning a brewing company is every guy’s dream, I think.
I’ve been brewing since I was in high school and so it just started from there. I ended up quitting my job and getting a job in the industry, one thing led to another and I got to this point. I’ve been in the industry for about four years now.
I got a job with one of the distributors here in the city I just wanted to know more about the industry itself, and it taught me a lot. I’d go door to door with a cooler, and just give out samples to people and the next day I’d deliver. I took a pretty big pay cut, against my wife’s wishes [laughs]. And just went from there and built the business plan and started raising capital.
It was kind of a side project at first and then it blossomed into this full-time gig. I’ve learned so much. I didn’t publicize the launch because I was embroiled in this trademark battle that took 24 months.That’s probably why you haven’t heard of us, or me. I say “us” all the time, but when I say “us,” it’s just me and my wife, she’s really the only person I can confide in.
Yeah, I just thought I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. I mean, the commercial real estate industry is great– you can make a lot of money– it’s just soulless. I don’t wanna say that and piss anyone off. But at least for me it was.
I didn’t like the cutthroat aspect of it. The beer industry is great, everyone’s friendly and cool and there’s not a lot of malicious behavior, which is intriguing to me. And honestly it was like, if I can do anything, why don’t I just go for it? At the time I was 34, you know. Just the hell with it. I’m gonna go for it and use my own money and everything.
After working with a local distributor, I went to a brewery and started working there. I was there for about two years. The lead brewer there, who’s one of the partners, he and I collaborated on one of the recipes and that’s what I’m using now.
I’m seriously to the grindstone every single day. I’m a one-man show so I really don’t have time to do anything. I’d really like to say I’m brewing every single day, but it’s just no the case right now. It’s still something I’m really passionate about, though.
I was initially self-distributing. The hernia I had [James informed us before the interview started that he’d recently had surgery] was from lifting kegs.
Yeah. I bought the kegs, I bought the Dodge Sprinter van, and I was like, “This is gonna be great, I’m just gonna go out there and deliver kegs myself and that’s gonna be it.” But then it started to become a lot of work, not only back-breaking work, but being out all day delivering kegs by yourself with the occasional help of friends and stuff. It’s been quite the process.
It was really difficult to get a contract with a brewery in the United States. I must have reached out to 35 different breweries. No one wants to take a risk on a startup. Their model is, “We’re going to contract brew for you, and our success is dependent on your success.”
As far as sourcing hops and grains and stuff, they do a really good job of keeping everything local. And that’s great, too, because a lot of New Yorkers and New York bars and restaurants want to keep it in-house, which I totally dig.
Yeah, that’s always been a goal of mine. I moved to Brooklyn back in 2008. Brooklyn’s changed drastically since I moved here. I was living in Carroll Gardens, and back then it was completely different from what it is now. But yeah, I’d really like to be somewhere in this vicinity.
Initially I was thinking the Fort Greene area, then I was thinking Greenpoint, near the water. Then I looked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I’ve also looked into East New York.
It’s very expensive, obviously. It’s very capital-heavy, I didn’t realize how much. I had an idea when I went into this, and now looking back it was very naive of me. But I wasn’t letting anything get in the way. People told me, “You shouldn’t do it, it’s a huge task.” There were a lot of naysayers. I think you get that with anything. But every obstacle that came in front of me, I just overcame it.
It’s been about a two-and-a-half year project to get it up and running. I mean, I could have built out a restaurant with the money that I’ve spent thus far: legal fees, branding, bottling, kegs, malt, hops. I can’t stress enough how much capital you need to really get this thing going.
It’s gonna happen, and when it happens it’s going to surprise a lot of people. You never want to get ahead of yourself, but soon, I’m thinking in the next 12 to 18 months.
I’m totally content with just being in New York right now. Although I received a call from a distributor in Michigan. I got a call from a guy in Georgia. I’ll get calls from random bars.
It’s funny talking to the bars, because they’re like, “Hey, can we get your beer?” And there are so many laws you have to abide by before getting beer into a different state. A guy from Texas called and was like, “Hey, we wanna bring your beer in and keep it on.” And I’m thinking, ‘Ah, that’s not how it works man.’
Well, everything has been a challenge. You think when you’re brewing in you’re kitchen, you’re like, “Oh this is beautiful and it’s just, harmony.” But then when you get into it, it’s pretty competitive. These draft lines are coveted. That’s been surprising.
But like I said earlier, for the most part everyone’s really cool. Also, you have to get labeling approval from the Federal Government and you need approval from the State, at least in New York. Every label you put through, and there are certain restrictions on the labels, has to be approved, it’s pretty interesting actually. There’s one man who decides the fates of everyone’s label in the country. There are a lot of restrictions. You can’t have ‘ABV,’ it has to say ‘Alcohol by Volume.’ There are some things you can’t put on there. You can’t have the American flag on there. A lot of the laws surprised me. The application process is very arduous.
It is weird. Because at first I was like, “Oh, I’ll have the Revolutionary War flag on there.” And then I started reading the law, and I found out there’s a prohibition on using the flag. The reasoning is that if it’s a single-use product, they consider it a disgrace to the flag, because you’re just tossing it.
Well, when I started out I only knew that I wanted to be in Brooklyn and that I wanted something that encapsulated Brooklyn. I started doing a lot of research and I looked into history from the very beginning, New York and the Revolutionary War.
“War Flag” is a reference to the Revolutionary war flag, with thirteen stars and all that. The image [of the snake] came second and really that’s just an offshoot of “War Flag” itself and that era of American history, the “Don’t Tread on Me,” the Gadsden Flag. And it started translating into other things. When I came up with the branding, the Occupy Movement was happening and the fight against stop-and-frisk and all the violations against Civil Liberties. So that also helped with the imagery.
Well, I’m a big advocate of civil liberties. I think everybody should be treated equally regardless of race or religion, and that’s very important to me. I think the philosophy of America is great.
If I had to choose a party that I followed, I would definitely be an Independent. But I think I said to myself at one point, “If one kid out of college can look at this and be like, ‘What does this mean?’ And then they look up what it means to have freedom of speech and what it means to not let someone take you aside and search you, or invade your privacy, or whatever the case. Those things are important to me.
But it’s definitely the beer that’s most important to me. But I do think the Occupy Movement was great, what they were talking about. There are a lot of things that need to change.
I was listening to Bernie Sanders, and I really like Bernie Sanders because he talks about corporate greed. It’s a horrible thing and it’s a huge problem in this country.
But I think at the end of the day, people need to understand they have rights. If people were educated at a young age about their rights, I don’t think we’d have this abuse of power where police officers are pulling people out of their cars and slamming them onto the ground and whatever. These Civil Liberties you have as an American, they mean something. It’s definitely something I’m passionate about. I can’t stand discrimination of any kind.